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Regional MPs hold ranks on SPC decision

Anna Vidot, Wednesday February 5, 2014 - 15:37 EDT
ABC image
SPC Ardmona employees work at the cannery at Shepparton in northern Victoria. - ABC

Some regional MPs may be disappointed about SPC Ardmona's failed bid for government assistance, but those who spoke with ABC Rural today aren't breaking ranks either.

The local Liberal MP Sharman Stone caused a storm on Tuesday, after telling ABC Rural that the Prime Minister had lied about why SPC Ardmona was in financial trouble.

Other Coalition parliamentarians have been more circumspect.

National Party Senator for Victoria, Bridget McKenzie, says she was very disappointed by Cabinet's decision to reject the proposal for a $25 million grant for SPCA. But Senator McKenzie says she's 'buoyed' by the Victorian Government's ongoing discussions with the company, and wouldn't categorise the Cabinet decision as 'wrong'.

"I think Cabinet made the decision it did for the reasons it did, and they were quite sound reasons. I think it's important to have consistency in policy application," Senator McKenzie said.

"I know Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey, I don't think they're liars. I think the company has been taking steps over time to address the local workforce issues, and that's what I think is quite exciting, in terms of how the company itself has been taking management decisions in the recent past that are actually trending well for the [Coca-Cola Amatil] board's decision [regarding its plans for SPCA] on February the 18th."

Other regional MPs expressed disappointment, but not surprise, at the SPCA decision, with a a different Nationals parliamentarian telling ABC Rural that, having scored a significant victory when Treasurer Joe Hockey rejected the sale of GrainCorp to American giant ADM, there's a sense that regional MPs may have to be content with that concession for now.

The Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey have been clear that their decision on SPC is a defining one for the Abbott Government, describing it as a 'line in the sand' and a clear message that 'the age of entitlement is over'.

That's left some in regional Australia concerned about what the Government's dim view of business bailouts might mean for taxpayer-funded drought assistance for farmers.

LNP Senator Ian Macdonald, from northern Queensland, says the two issues are completely different.

"In one case you've got some of the world's biggest companies [such as car manufacturers] being propped up by the Australian taxpayer, in the southern states where the voters are," he said.

"This issue, with the northern beef cattle industry in particular, is an issue of natural calamities: droughts, fires, floods, other difficulties that are naturally occurring. But also, it all emanates from the decision of the previous government to, overnight and without warning, ban the [live export] trade [to Indonesia in mid-2011] that all those farmers had for their cattle."

As the Country Hour reported yesterday, experts say it's too late to be trying to develop drought policy now that the dry's returned, that politicians across the spectrum have dropped the ball, and should have done more to build on a comprehensive 2008 review of drought policy.

NSW Nationals MP John Cobb was the agriculture spokesman for the Coalition throughout its time in Opposition, and he concedes there is an legitimate argument that politicians and governments of all political stripes could have done more between 2008 and now, to develop a long-term drought policy for Australia.

But he says even the most comprehensive planning for drought would likely not be enough.

"The best drought policy in the world tends to be altered when you get into the kind of drought we've had in the past," Mr Cobb said.

"Governments come up with good policy, and I believe we can and we must. But in the face of continuous and widespread losses, water losses, stock losses, family dislocation, no government will refuse to do more than the policy says."

The Treasurer has made it clear his first Budget in May will be a tough one. Mr Cobb has a sober assessment of the chances of getting a drought assistance package through Cabinet.

"If the drought gets bad enough, they'll win that argument alright, don't worry about that. But I don't want to get to that situation, it's bad enough now."


- ABC

© ABC 2014

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